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On Ghosteen, Nick Cave invites us into his bright abyss

Photo: Matthew Thorne

Just around the time Nick Cave began to abandon the narrative, the narrative came for him. As he wrote 2013’s Push The Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, the man who had previously spun memorable and deranged fables out of Elvis’ birth, Greek mythology, the darkest notes of the blues, and the perils of not having sex found himself no longer interested in telling stories. And then, the tragedy: Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died when he fell from a cliff in Brighton.

The story of Arthur’s death dominated the release of Skeleton Tree. The album was almost entirely written and partially recorded before the fall, but its drifting paranoia and swirling confusion make it feel like a document of the earliest, most chaotic days of mourning. In the years that followed, Cave found himself unable to compose. “Great trauma can rob us of this, the ability to be awed by things,” he wrote to a fan earlier this year, adding that his lyrical approach had since “shifted fundamentally”: “I found with some practice the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.”

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The double album Ghosteen, then, is Nick Cave’s first transmission from a brand-new country. This is true in the literal sense—he and his wife, Susie, left Brighton for Los Angeles, where much of the album was recorded—and in what we might call the spiritual sense. Profound loss, as anyone who has suffered it knows, can fully upend a person’s understanding of themselves and the world. The horizons of possibility become radically altered; the sun, it turns out, doesn’t require nearly as much space to set.

What Cave sends us from this new place is remarkable. Ghosteen is both his most solitary recording since 2001’s No More Shall We Part and impossible to imagine without the contributions of The Bad Seeds. Long one of rock’s most versatile and visceral bands, here they’re tasked with wrapping swirls of atmospheric sound—braids of synth, vibraphones that echo from a mile away—around Cave’s elegant piano playing. He sounds simultaneously alone at the edge of the world and surrounded by benevolent spirits, a fittingly biblical cloud of witnesses who haven’t seen the power of God so much as they’ve moved through the fallout of their own atomic blasts; theirs is a communion of radiation.

So it’s a bit of a surprise that Ghosteen is also Cave’s most accessible album since The Boatman’s Call, the 1997 turn to classic songwriting that cemented his reputation as one of rock’s most finely tuned lyricists. Though he’s billed it as third in a stylistic trilogy that began with Push The Sky Away, the writing is straightforward, and, on the page, occasionally borders on the banal. “Peace will come, a peace will come in time,” he sings on the opening “Spinning Song,” while a couple of tracks later on “Waiting For You,” he turns the title around in the chorus—from here, “you” are a lover, from this angle, “you” are God. Cave has always been able to crack into an overworn phrase, freeing its essence to roam around his songs, and Ghosteen’s simplest lyrics often have the most devastating impact. “I’m just waiting for now, for peace to come,” he sings in the final moments of closer “Hollywood.” He sounds exhausted, humbled, close to restored but still steeling himself for disappointment.

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That’s not the whole story. The territory of mourning can be immeasurably vast, big enough to contain both love in full flush and its object’s path of departure. Across Ghosteen, but particularly on the first album, large-heartedness and devastation prove inseparable, and The Bad Seeds build starry galaxies that expand with every sigh. “Bright Horses” walks this space slowly, taking in a place where in one moment, “horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire, the fields are just fields, and there ain’t no Lord,” and in the next, the apparent sadness of the world is overcome by the persistent buoyancy of belief, regardless of its literal truth: “I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord,” Cave sings as the light shifts and overtakes him. It’s notable that he doesn’t see the horses. It’s also notable that it doesn’t seem to matter.

In the brief lead-up to Ghosteen’s release, Cave wrote that “The songs on the first album are the children. The songs on the second album are their parents.” The first set’s songs are shorter, brighter, almost liturgical; they move as though they have a goal in mind, even if they aren’t sure what that goal is. The songs in the second set feel open-ended and more ambiguous, less sure of the future, but undoubtedly wise even as they reel between sorrow and joy. It’s tempting to think of them as songs of relative innocence and experience, with the gravitas of the latter presumably outweighing the former; “sometimes, a little faith can go a long way,” Cave sings early on. If these songs are the children, that means they carry a child’s gifts: sweetness and an eagerness to connect, but also naïveté. It is naïve, after all, to think there might be any good left in the story after you’ve encountered the worst of the Lord. But if they’re the children, Cave must think the future belongs to them.

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